For decades in the city’s farmers markets and at seasonally minded restaurants, ramps have been a harbinger of spring. Now, virus or no virus, they have reappeared, serving as a sign of nature’s continuing vitality and ineluctability.
Ramps — sometimes known as wild leeks — are an allium, like onions, garlic, shallots, and chives. They grow wild in higher elevations in the northeast United States, often in swampy conditions. Ramps have white bulbs that hide partly underground, and tapered, dark-green leaves that come to a point. They were known for their medicinal qualities among Native American tribes, and in Europe had a reputation as a seasonal delicacy. In fact, when Rapunzel’s mom in the Grimm’s fairy tale handed her daughter over to Rumpelstiltskin, it was for a fistful of ramps.
Nowadays, they are loved by cooks and gourmets, who value them for the gastronomic stinkiness that makes others hate them. Ramps are one of the first seasonal foods to appear in the Greenmarkets, and in regular times, restaurants tend to serve them in specials, thrilling signals of warm-weather produce to follow. Ramps herald the arrival of other early spring crops like breakfast radishes, spring onions, asparagus, fiddleheads, and strawberries.
Lately, I’ve been going to every Union Square Greenmarket (Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday) to see if the ramps had yet arrived, and was finally rewarded this past Friday. Two vendors were selling them.
One was Mountain Sweet Berry Farm of Roscoe, New York, located in the western part of the Lower Catskills. The farm is run by Rick Bishop, an early farmers market pioneer who first achieved notoriety for selling Tristar strawberries, small specimens harvested throughout summer and early fall that retain much of the concentrated flavor of wild strawberries. Lately, he has specialized in heirloom potato varieties, some of which he converts to potato chips sold by the brown paper bag.
Ramps are another of his obsessions, and he’s been selling them at Union Square for 33 years, making him probably the earliest one to do so. Bishop stands behind a table full of them neatly arranged, roots outward, and hawks them like a country evangelist, wearing a mask and gesturing with both blue-gloved hands. He engages customers in conversation and repartee, but mainly explains how he harvests them sustainably. Ramps are one of those products that farmers don’t grow and don’t pay for; they forage them, often on public lands.
A few years ago, the New York Times published an expose about how the city slickers’ passion for ramps had caused some greedy farmers to over-pick, leading to vast barren patches of swampland where the wild plant might never come back. In addition to his spiel on how ramps should be harvested, a chalkboard stands in front of Bishop’s table, furnishing the same info. I buy a bunch for $5, which consists of 12 or so plants, damp soil still clinging to their roots.
A dozen small plants for a fiver doesn’t sound like a great deal, but it really is, because one ramp goes a long way. I peddle home on my bike and began using them right away, because ramps don’t keep; they’re weeds, after all. As soon as I get home, I clean them by removing the top layer of skin from the bulb and cutting off the roots. A quick rinse, a pat dry, and a wrap in a paper towel, then placement inside a plastic bag complete the preparation. They keep longer when refrigerated.
Here are some things to do with ramps:
1. Take two plants, mince the bulbs and julienne the leaves, then soak them in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Add salt and whip in a smaller amount of vinegar to make a thick ramp vinaigrette.
2. Use them directly in soups (chicken rice and tortilla soups the ones I’ve tried) to give the soup a wallop of flavor.
3. Sautee the minced bulbs in butter, scramble in some eggs, and add the shredded leaves as the eggs are just beginning to set.
4. Blend the whole plant with pine nuts, grated parmesan, salt, and olive oil to make a ramp pesto.
The result may not quite equal the excitement of seeing ramps on a restaurant menu, but the flavors can still bring a splash of spring into isolation.